Monday, November 07, 2011

Beech nuts

While finally getting around to putting away the t-shirts and shorts and getting out the woollies and fleecies I caught BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme, which was about wild food and foraging for it.  It is, in a small way, a thriving business, with dedicated and knowledgeable foragers with long client lists of top chefs and restaurants who are just queuing up to buy not only wild mushrooms, always sought after and paid handsomely for in most of Europe though not until recently by the wary British, but stuff like hogweed seeds, goosegrass, and even pine needles - used as an aromatic and infused into sugar, among other things; Heston Blumenthal was going on about how he dusts it onto mince pies in an ad for Waitrose the other day. A little while ago someone was telling me about how they'd stopped at a fashionable and well-reviewed restaurant on a UK holiday and eaten nettle soup with snails in ( on purpose, apparently, not because they'd omitted to wash them off the nettles), something with wild garlic, I think, followed by deep fried sand eels.  

I have long been an inveterate forager. Richard Mabey's Food for Free has been a vade mecum for me for a very long time, I got my first copy of it out of the library in my early teens and have scarcely ever been without it. Richard Maybe was on the programme, speaking intelligently about the difference between the hobby foraging of today and the necessity of supplementing diet and income which had driven it in former times.  He applauded the chefs and foodies and professional foragers for exploring it and reviving the interest, and for getting people back in touch with nature and natural food.  

Yet, call me a grousing malcontent, but something about this rankles with me. Perhaps it's just the kind of resentment one tends to feel when one has always enjoyed something but rather been looked askance at  and considered eccentric for it, then suddenly it becomes fashionable and everyone is indiscriminately jumping on the bandwagon. And it is indiscriminate; I've eaten a lot of this stuff, some of it's good, some delicious, other things you'd really only bother with if you were in imminent danger of demise from starvation, or scurvy at least. There are good reasons why humankind selected certain plants over others and developed them to grow bigger and better. It seems to me the current gastronomic wild food craze is a kind of faux frugality, flirting with back-to-nature, a pose, Marie-Antoinette playing shepherdesses, and in the end all about novelty - we've eaten every kind of exotica flown in from everywhere and our palates are jaded, bring us coarse weeds from the hedges to tickle them, we'll pay good money and drive our 4-wheel-drives many miles to get them... 

For all the Athenians and the strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear of some new thing...

Decadent. When I went to look up a link for Mabey's Food for Free, the first search result that came up was for an organisation of the same name which seeks to redistribute the enormous amounts of waste in from modern food outlets. This in America it's true, but waste is endemic everywhere, playing at self-sufficiency and eating from the hedgerows doesn't really address that; true frugality would be better served by wasting less, indeed, by eating less, by doing with gluts and doing without, not chasing around after something different all the time.  

But no, this won't do, grousing malcontent indeed.  Better the hirsute foragers, who do no harm to the environment they forage, than mange-tout flown in from Kenya, and I don't think anyone's pretending it's really contributing to sustainability. And I'm just as bad myself.  I like to think that my foraging is about developing skills of identifying and preparing wild food, and a way of making the best of being, relatively speaking, time-rich and cash-poor, as gathering and picking over and processing takes time, but it's really just for fun, playing around and trying to be different, which is probably why I'm cross about other people doing it too - I enjoyed being seen as a bit quaint.  And I'm very aware that while my jams and syrups and liqueurs may be from fruit and flowers from the hedgerows, but the sugar and booze comes courtesy of the wicked multinationals and their cash crops; the the herbs and leaves might be out of the fields and banks where the wild thyme blows but the olive oil they're dressed with cost money from the other kind of bank and came quite a long way to be here. And I'm hooked on trying new things too.

Never mind, I'll go on fiddling in my own way while Rome burns, and lucky I am to be able to do it.

All of which is a long and grumpy preamble to the original matter of this post, which is proof positive that I really must have too much time on my hands (I don't really, I just distract myself with trifles while the floor goes unswept and the dog unbrushed).  

Beech nuts.  

Chestnuts and oaks are the predominant broad-leaved deciduous trees in these parts, but there are a few beech trees about too, and for the first time I can remember I noticed this year that the little triangular, three husked nuts, or mast, were unusually plump, and on closer examination, they proved to contain actual nutty little nuts - usually they are empty.  So while Molly mooched around in one of her favourite Stations of the Mol, a lay-by under a large beech tree in the woods above Quessoy, (she often doesn't care much to go for a proper walk in these places, but barks as we approach them, even when she has been apparently fast asleep until that moment, and likes to potter round in circles indefinitely) I gathered a handkerchief full of beech mast and took it home to experiment with.

In fact I couldn't find much positive about beech nuts as a food crop, they were generally left for the pigs to munch on, or made into oil.  They have a high oil content and it keeps well.  They tend only to fruit this abundantly about every four years.

As I had done with the seeds I'd salvaged from a pumpkin, I left them on the kitchen counter and shelled them in dribs and drabs just with my nails as I was passing.  You can get through quite a lot that way.

I have chosen in the name of honesty not to crop out the box of Cabernet d'Anjou or the jar of boiled sweets, just to prove I am no earthy purist in food matters, but really have quite low tastes.

The nuts are perhaps a centimetre long, and covered in a brown skin.  They may be a bit high in tannin for comfort it seems, so the skin needs to come off.

The first lot I toasted skin-on,

rubbed the skin off in the palm of my hand a few at a time while they were hot and blew on them to winnow them.  It felt nice.

The second lot I blanched with hot water like almonds, which is quite quick, and then toasted after.

I thought the first method was probably best, they seemed to toast more evenly and the flavour was better.  Like most nuts and seeds they're tastier toasted.

My plan was to make a kind of pesto with them, with the basil that won't stop growing on the windowsill, and the pumpkin seeds and some small but very nice walnuts also foraged from a tree by where our friends used to live.  Their neighbour, since deceased, used to carefully gather the walnuts and clean them all and put them in wooden boxes and give them away to anyone who wanted them, now I just pick a few up if I'm passing.  However, the three-seed collection was so nice as it was, I've  just been keeping them to one side and scattering them on salads as and when.  

Probably not really worth the bother, but interesting anyway!


Catalyst said...

But the snails, Lucy, the snails! You can't be the second person from France in two days to say they don't eat escargot. You just can't.

marja-leena said...

As always, I enjoy your rambling stories including the odd little grousing about things. I agree with you regarding the food waste, the distances food travels and the food fashions. The 100-mile-diet (the book) started here and there are numerous farmers' markets now, so eating local has become more than just a fad but a good thing. Yet we still rely on an awful lot of imported food because so much farm land has been taken over by developers for spreading housing, and there are fewer and fewer farmers out there since agricorps have taken over. Somehow I think France is doing better than we are.

the polish chick said...

ah, marja-leena, are you from canada in general or from bc specifically? i agree about the fashion for local food becoming more mainstream in canada, but for us in alberta where the cold wind blows for far more than half a year, eating locally would mean a lot of turnips, cabbage and desiccated potatoes, which is just one way of saying this place isn't really meant for human habitation, but whatevs.

lucy, i understand the ambivalence you feel. i think i am frequently teeter-tottering on the verge of being really quaint and really hypocritical. i suppose that, like schrodinger's cat, i am neither and both. i have also been a natural forager since i was a little kid being shown nature's bounty by my paternal grandmother. sadly, that was in poland, which actually has a decent growing season. in alberta, we forage for icicles.

i despise food waste and am often appalled by people leaving their unwanted grocery items all over the store, knowing that a half-defrosted pizza from the magazine rack is going to go straight to the dumpster. grrrr!

also, as i sit here writing this lengthy diatribe, i must confess that i am eating a pomegranate.

Julia said...

We're having a nut and berry filled season over here too (I'm not exactly sure what type of nuts, but have just ruled out beech after looking at your pictures). I wonder what spurred the trees on this year - a cool summer perhaps?

julia said...

I also listened to The Food Programme with interest, being the kind of person who returns from a walk with pockets full.

The sentiment is good, waste not, make full uses of the resources around you. but I dislike the 'it's a new fashion' angle too.

And recently I was horrified to see Jamie Oliver on TV carelessly tugging wild mushrooms from their earthy beds.

It's a start though, a small step in the right direction, until the corporations leap on the hay wagon and exploit it

have I rambled from the point of your post, I hope not

Rosie said... fads are a luxury.
I don't eat snails either, nasty rubbery things. If you want lots of garlic and butter there are better ways to down them!
I did enjoy mushroom hunting when exiled in Central Brittany, and of course you cut them at the base and dont uproot them...

earlybird said...

I thoroughly approve of the comparison with Marie-Antoinette - that's just the way I feel about the current craze. It's rather distasteful. It's like having ingredients from different seasons in the same recipe. (grrr)

I have had a copy of Mabey's 'Food for Free' since 1976. There are still older people here who 'forage' for snails after the rain (although I think the snails are now 'protected'), for wild salads, pissenlit, thyme (also protected), sariette, juniper, wild asparagus, nuts and, of course, young and old alike are out after mushrooms. But it's still 'par gourmandise' and not (yet) out of necessity.

Love the idea of the beech nuts. Not many beech trees round here. I'd need to go 'up into the hills'.

Unknown said...

Prompted rather by Richard Mabey and a sense of adventure, than by frugality, I once tried cooking ground elder, which at the time overwhelmed my vegetable patch. It was unspeakably awful. Perhaps I should have confined the experiment to the earliest and tenderest leaves in the Spring. But if didn't bother.
The beech nuts which I have been used to nibbling on the hoof, look and sound excellent. I wish I could find enough to make a pesto, but the squirrels getthere first.

Crafty Green Poet said...

excellent article, I agree that much of current foraging is a faux frugality and an kind of annoying playing and posing, but it does help people learn about plants and enjoy the outdoors which is good, plus its good training for if weever find outselvespushed into foraging for survival....

I have gone on fungi forays and often pick blackberries, raspberries and wild strawberries though none in any great quantity. I'm curious to try some of the edible leaves, I'm going to make a list (from my copy of Food for Free) and then pick samples of some of them next Spring.